Sunday September 5
Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
We should love each other. It's the ultimate “motherhood” statement of the church. Families should especially love each other. That does not need biblical support, chapter and verse, because it is a given, a with-mother's-milk learning that we simply assume.
If we are listening when we read this week's text, we find our deepest motherhood assumptions are under attack.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
There is an instant need to spiritualise, allegorise, or as Loader says, domesticate this statement. Love one another has become such a mantra, that unless we are careful and deliberate, our domestication of today's text will be almost unconscious. It will not even be allowed to be shocking, or seen as a contradiction, because psychologically that would be too difficult.
Love is good. Hate is bad. Jesus is about loving. So when he says "hate", he doesn't really mean it.
That, in brief, will be the kind of path our unconscious thinking will follow. I want to rediscover the shocking nature of what he says. I want to do that without domesticating the statement he has made, if I can, and try and find where in that statement there is good news.
I think we modern western folk understand love, hate, and shame, in very emotional and individualistic ways. If I say I love you, or hate you, it refers primarily to the emotions I have toward you. These emotions are about feelings, not about responsibilities or actions.
We often don't follow through on the implications such statements contain. So in flat contradiction of his actions, a man who spends all his time at work, or with his friends, still assures his wife he loves her.
In fact, “love” in this context, might be more about his desire to have a wife there for him, when he wants her, with all the comforts that entails, and not have a lot to do with any real feeling for her. She may have the recurring thought, “It's not about you...”
Love is a devalued currency. It is ephemeral, lasting a week or two in a soap opera like Home and Away, full of drama, and then gone. The love of the husband who supports an increasingly querulous and lost wife through 20 years of early onset Alzheimer's is an inspiration. It inspires us, as it should. But it becomes amazing and extraordinary; we often do not think of such acts of love as the norm, as just what you do, what anyone would do, for love.
The deep emotional attachments and tendernesses of love are a great gift. How blessed we are to have these, and not merely to be driven by some biologically selected species survival instinct. This emotional love is at its best, however, when it is underpinned by actions, when our actions match the emotions we espouse.
We modern western folk are better at hatred, of course, and more likely to follow through with corresponding actions! But even here, there are contradictions. On the family farm, the two brothers may be good friends, who both carry a deep hatred and resentment of the over bearing father. But when one makes a try for freedom, the other will side utterly with the father whom he hates, and support him in the maintenance of the Family Farm, or the Family Firm- even though there would be enough land for all three to go their separate ways.
Families have odd loyalties. Police and clergy know well that a warring couple, full of hatred for each other, are apt to form a solid united front when strangers intervene. It is naïve to think the weaker partner, usually the wife, has been coerced into this. One of the sad hilarities of such situations is the bemused bloke, recently defending himself against an furious woman, who suddenly finds her defending him against the cops! Something about the family, and its loyalties, morphs an angry partner into vigorous supporter when outsiders attack. The family has pride, and will not be shamed by interlopers. And we who came to help find ourselves on the defensive... and sometimes very literally!
I suspect that when Jesus is talking about love and hatred in this week's text, the dynamics we see where families close ranks against the outsider, are much closer to his situation than our individualistic, feelings based ideas, about love.
In Jesus time, family was the central unit of society. The notion of young singles taking a flat on their own in the city, was unthinkable. Likewise, old people did not retire with a grey nomad's caravan, and a unit on the Gold Coast. People stayed with and supported the family. It was their centre. It was the unit which supported and nourished them and enabled their survival.
"Hate" should be understood in the contest of the first-century middle-eastern world. It is not so much an emotional position, but a matter of honor and shame. Tannehill on miseo:
In the ancient world...hating one's family meant doing something that injured them, particularly by disgracing them. Life was family centered, and the honor of the family was very highly valued. Every family member was expected to protect the honor of the family. If some members joined a suspect movement and abandoned their home, this brought disgrace on the family... (p. 235)
As we all know, that family could be toxic. Loader says of today
People today can recite a range of experiences about family demonics. Sometimes it is blatant abuse, whether by parent of child or among siblings or in marriage. Sometimes the destructiveness is more ‘innocent’: the peace and ‘goodness’ of family has suppressed self exploration and generation of self worth to the point where long after their passing the parents, internalised, continue to dictate terms and only with careful therapy can the soul find release.
There is no reason to think this is a purely modern phenomenon.
The difference today is that it is often possible to leave, at least in a geographic sense. Economically this was far more difficult to achieve in Jesus time; that is, it was an economic impossibility for a far greater percentage of the population. People today are still trapped in abusive marriage or family because they cannot afford to live apart.
Jesus' time had social norms and strictures which stopped people leaving. To love the family was to support the whole family structure. Withdrawing this support was to hate the family. Not supporting and being part of the family structure brought shame upon it. Much of this was at least in part economically driven. This is clear from Neyrey's article Honoring the Dishonored: The Cultural Edge of Jesus' Beatitudes.
Honour, shame, and family were strongly influenced by the relative scarcity of resources in Jesus' time.
For ill or good, our economic affluence means that in the short term, the maintenance of the family, and the honoring of the family to allow economic and social survival, is not so necessary. Put bluntly, the family can survive without us. So in many ways it is now easier to simply pretend that we don't exist, rather than go to the expense (of time, energy and emotion) to shame us back into line. I note the great relaxation of social strictures and mores during my lifetime, and which is also evident in the stories of my parents and grandparents. I link this with the general increase of affluence here in Australia over the last centure. We can afford to flout family, and family can more afford to let us go, ignore us, or tolerate us.
Let us try and draw this all together as we look at the text.
In Jesus time, hating family meant to transfer our basic loyalty from our family, and from our family responsibilities, to the following of Jesus, and being part of his community. For some families this would be an occasion of immense shame. The shame was engendered either by serious loss of income, and therefore status and honour (Neyrey), and / or by the fact that we had taken up with a bunch of religious oddballs, malcontents, subversives or whatever the people of The Way were seen as by our family.
Because family is everything in this social context, to hate family is to invite the cross. To follow Jesus is to invite the loss of all possessions. It is a simple economic and social equation. It is literal. There is not the least need to think of metaphorical language here. Death and poverty were likely, even probable outcomes.
Some time ago a father was outraged by my colleague, who still performed the wedding of his daughter in the local church, despite the announcement of her pregnancy. There was anger and distress, the withdrawal of blessing, the threat of non-attendance at the wedding, disowning of the daughter, and more. In the wash up of all this, it was a great wedding. The rest of the family rallied around in blessing, and he is variously pitied, laughed at, or loathed.
In Jesus time his shame would have ruled all, even to the point of the death of the daughter.
Jesus is uncompromising. We cannot be subject to family, or love family in his cultural terms, and be one of his people. To use more traditional religious language, there is one God only. We either let that God, to which Jesus points us, be God, or we let the family be God.
Clearly the lesson of the text at this point can also warn us that we can submit to other groups or issues and let them be God, instead of God being God.
The good news in all this?
Jesus is urging personal freedom and healing from family. Rephrasing Bill's words from above, although, people today can recite a range of experiences about family demonics, sometimes blatant abuse, sometimes more ‘innocent’ (and needing) careful therapy, the soul not only can “find release,” but the expectation of release and healing is implicit in all the teaching and living out of the Kingdom we see Jesus doing.
My Bible calls this pericope in Luke "The Cost of Discipleship." It might well, on reflection, be called
"The Benefits of Discipleship."
There is a broader corporate application of Jesus' words. That the family is everything is an early understanding of human society. Note that I have said “the family is everything,” not “the family is basic.” At base, this understanding is not much more human than the group dynamics of a family of some other species defending its territory and its own.
Beyond family, in our human development, we have begun to recognise tribe, and even nation. We are still tribal about this; my country right or wrong, people sometimes say. But what Jesus points us to in Luke, with the story of the Samaritan is that our real solidarity is our humanity, not our family, tribe or nation. Our family may be our place of origin or nurture, but it is not our definition. It does not own us.
In Jesus' terms, to hate family, and to love humanity, is basic to the Gospel. Even we as a church have needed to learn that the church is not another tribe, our tribe. Jesus is not calling us out of our birth family to join his tribal family. The church has been at its worst when it has done this. Jesus is calling us out of our family, and perhaps even our church in some cases, to join the Kingdom of God, to grow up, and become more fully human.
If we do not do this, our religion will descend into the level of “cheer leader or hobbyist,” and we will, in fact, not love Jesus but love family or some other substitute. (This stunning characterisation of a religion which gives the state its ultimate allegiance is made by Paul Griffiths, and is rather apposite to the text this week.)
I said at the beginning that I did not want to domesticate Jesus' words. Here is the raw implication, for me, of Luke's telling of the tradition:
Jesus is uncompromising. We cannot be subject to family, or love family in his cultural terms, and be one of his people. To use religious language, there is one God only. We either let that God, to which Jesus points us, be God, or we let the family, or the nation, or the company, or the university, or the army, or the football club, or ourselves be God.
We all fail and let some of these institutions have more of us than we should. I want to be uncompromising and say that there is some point, some level of passion, some kind of commitment or aspiration which means, however compromised we are, we have given ourselves to Jesus, and to desiring to be fully human. In this context the grace of God is far more accepting of our failings that I could ever be. That said, in our present lived and experienced reality, which is shaping our future, I cannot wiggle out of the claim that there is also a point at which our failures and compromise are really a failure to transfer our allegiance to Jesus, or even a transfer of allegiance away from Jesus. The text then becomes shocking indeed. We will have saved our life perhaps, but lost it.
Would you like to comment?
I have turned off the feedback module due to constant spamming. However, if you would like to comment, or discuss a post, you are welcome to email me using the link at the bottom of this page, and I may include your comments at the bottom of this article.